January 2011

Mid-term elections should have been our wake up call

by Frank Di Giacomo, Publisher

If there was any doubt that the next two years, particularly 2011, would continue the massive increases in federal public transportation spending, this past November's elections should have removed it. In fact, the results should be our wake-up call. Our industry may be in for a fight that will be bigger than it was in 1995, when there was talk of eliminating the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).

It is not just that Democrats lost more than 60 seats, the biggest mid-term beating of a president's party in more than 70 years. Many of the winners have never held public office before, and they were elected on promises to shrink the size of government. In fact, more than one-half of the new House of Representatives will have been elected after the last major authorizations were passed. That means that we all have a big education job to do, even to show why there is a federal role at all for public transportation.

This is not going to be like 1995, either. That year, after the new Republican majority first proposed to merge the FTA with the Federal Highway Administration and turn the combined funding over to the states in the form of block grants, Republican governors and mayors were out front urging their congressional colleagues to pass more funding for highways and public transportation. The result was TEA 21 and SAFETEA-LU, which included record levels of guaranteed federal funding. This time around, many of those elected as governors and state legislators describe our programs as wasteful.

However, it is not like all Republicans want to gut federal programs. In fact, the new chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), wants to introduce, in early spring, a bill almost as big as what his predecessor, former Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.), proposed. The real question is how to pay for it, and even there, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and most members of President Obama's deficit commission favor a gas tax increase to pay for more infrastructure spending, including on public transportation, to help grow the economy.

We in the industry, now more than ever before, need to help make the case that there is a federal role in public transportation, and it needs to be strengthened. We should also remind Congressional members, especially the newly elected conservatives, that another new conservative government, in Great Britain, is simultaneously cutting most spending to balance its budget but increasing infrastructure spending, including high-speed rail and local public transportation. They see this as part of a strategy to help them compete in the global economy.

In other words, there are many arguments in favor of public transportation investment that could resonate with conservatives. But we need to make them, over and over again, and now.

 


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